Hallmark's same-sex marriage gaffe shows how social media is raising the stakes for marketers

"Whereas brands 10 or even five years ago might have specifically targeted only those consumers, today they need to be cognizant of the much larger market of people who view themselves LGBT supporters," one expert said.
Image: Hallmark pulled a gay-themed wedding commercial from the planning website Zola.
Hallmark pulled a gay-themed commercial for Zola, a wedding-planning site, then reinstated it after backlash on social media.Zola

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Martha C. White

Hallmark’s rapid reversal on a same-sex marriage advertisement is a reflection of how rapidly the cross-currents of social media can change — and a lesson for brands on how responding to online feedback can be a double-edged sword in the age of Twitter.

Hallmark’s announcement Sunday that it would reinstate a commercial from wedding-planning site Zola showing a lesbian couple kissing came less than a week after its earlier decision to stop running the ad, following online petitions from two conservative groups objecting to the commercial.

After Hallmark pulled the ad, it faced an online firestorm. Hashtags such as #BoycottHallmark gained traction and the company was criticized by LGBT-rights groups and celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres, who tweeted, “Isn’t it almost 2020? @hallmarkchannel, @billabbottHC… what are you thinking? Please explain. We’re all ears.”

“This story really shows us that brands have to move quickly today when it comes to making decisions," said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

"Hallmark moved very quickly to reverse their decision, and it’s unusual where you see a company make a big decision like this and then reverse the decision so quickly. This also really reflects how powerful social media is today,” he said.

Social channels make it easy for consumers to interact with and react to marketing messages in real time, Calkins said. “There is an opportunity to impact marketing with these social media efforts.”

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

Todd Sears, founder and CEO of Out Leadership, said that brands are realizing they have to adapt their strategies as acceptance of same-sex marriage has become mainstream. “So many Americans, the majority, consider themselves allies to LGBT people,” he said. Whereas brands 10 or even five years ago might have specifically targeted only those consumers, today they need to be cognizant of the much larger market of people who view themselves LGBT supporters, he said.

“I can’t think of many companies that would have made a mistake like this in 2019,” Sears said, but he added that Hallmark’s prompt response and the tone it set could prevent any long-term fallout to the brand’s reputation. “It seems they learned a very hard lesson very quickly,” he said.

“Its apology was very heartfelt and there was an earnestness, a sincerity in the apology,” Calkins said.

Mike Perry, president and CEO of Hallmark Cards, said in a statement Sunday, “We are truly sorry for the hurt and disappointment this has caused,” and said the executives who made the decision to initially pull the ad had been “agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused.”

Consumers today expect marketing campaigns to be inclusive and socially aware — and when brands fail on that front, they face criticism in nearly real time.

Consumers today expect marketing campaigns to be inclusive and socially aware, Calkins said. When brands fail on that front, they face criticism in nearly real time.

“People are holding companies to higher standards,” he said, citing the Peloton commercial that elicited charges of sexism on social media. “People expect companies to be leaders in conversations.”

Calkins also pointed out that one brand’s stumble can be another’s opportunity. In the wake of the Zola commercial controversy, other media platforms responded with messages of their own promoting inclusivity. “Titles Featuring Lesbians Joyfully Existing And Also It’s Christmas Can We Just Let People Love Who They Love/Let It Snow/Merry Happy Whatever,” Netflix said in a weekend tweet.

With more companies choosing to highlight same-sex couples or families in their advertising, Sears said the fact that Hallmark bowed to pressure from conservative groups in the first place is an indication of what he characterized as “the toxic political and social culture that the country is in right now.”

“Look at the erosion of LGBT rights under President Donald Trump's administration,” he said. “We’re seeing there’s a culture of intolerance that has pervaded the country, and with that is a license to say things that otherwise would have been considered discriminatory.”

For brands, this can mean walking a tightrope when it comes to not offending a politically polarized consumer base. “In general, marketing leaders try to avoid controversy,” Calkins said, noting how quickly Hallmark initially responded to social media criticism from conservative groups before making its about-face. “What they didn’t think through was that the one controversy would lead to another controversy,” he said.

NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, and Comcast Ventures are investors in Zola. Comcast owns NBCUniversal.